Essay: Will the Northwest Forest Plan come undone?

A commentary in the form of an article in High Country News:

Will the Northwest Forest Plan come undone?
The Forest Service and BLM embark on revising the iconic plan and may allow more logging.


“On a March evening in Portland, Oregon, Forest Service officials met with about 150 members of the public for a “listening session” as the agency begins the process of crafting a replacement for the plan. It expects to finish that work by 2019.

“Many of those in attendance at the Portland session were members of the environmental group Bark, which insists that the current plan is allowing too many trees to be cut down, especially near rivers. Conspicuously absent from the meeting were the timber workers. The scene was a major contrast to the 1993 Clinton summit, when workers protested the loss of timber jobs by loudly rolling big log trucks through downtown Portland.”

Too many trees to be cut down, especially near rivers? Where? I haven’t seen any trees cut along rivers on USFS ground in a long time.

I agree that the USFS ought to hold listening sessions in rural areas, rather than near airports in Portland, Redding, and Seattle.

18 thoughts on “Essay: Will the Northwest Forest Plan come undone?”

  1. I don’t think the FS intends to leave people out.. so I wonder why there are fewer timber workers than during the Clinton Administration? Are there just fewer workers around now?

    Was that because it was a bigger deal then than everyday old public involvement? Did the Clinton Administration try harder to/ or were they more interested in getting the perspective of these workers?

  2. Maybe its because the timber workers have given up the fight and are now busing tables up at the lodge where the folks from Sausalito are meditating on the spiritual renewal acquired in their recent wilderness experience.

  3. Sharon wonders whether the Clinton administration tried harder than the current incumbent to involve the public in writing the Northwest Forest Plan. Not really. As I recall, there were no public hearings, listening sessions, or any similar public forum associated with the Northwest Forest Plan. To understand why, one has to go back to the NFP’s origins — the 1984 PNW Regional Guide. Regional guides are now extinct, but back in the day they were required by the NFMA planning rule to address cross-boundary issues. The PNW’s regional guide included a spotted owl habitat plan. No hearings or public meetings accompanied adoption of the regional guide. As was common in that era, a draft plan issued (together with a draft EIS), followed by a written public comment period, and then the final plan.

    From that modest beginning, the regional guide was appealed administratively, remanded by the Secretary’s office, re-issued with little change, and wound up in court. Once the court process kicked off, circa 1989, the Forest Service reflexively circled the wagons, shut the doors, and clammed up. Injunctions, appeals, congressional enactments, more injunctions, more appeals . . . and a newly-elected president whose northwest campaign promised an end to the fighting.

    Delivering on that promise meant one thing and one thing only. A forest plan acceptable to the federal courts; one that, to paraphrase its leading author, told the truth and followed the law. The only collaboration needed to do so was between federal agencies. The only audience key to the plan’s success was federal judge Bill Dwyer.

    That’s not to say that there weren’t numerous opportunities for the public to express their views. But, none was a part of the formal planning process. Log truck rallies around courthouses. Rock concerts on Portland’s waterfront park. Tree sits in big trees. In these ad hoc public forums tens of thousands gave voice to what they cared about on our national forests. Those were honest voices that spoke eloquently and forthrightly. They were profoundly influential in shaping national forest policy, even if their views are not found in any formal administrative record.

  4. Three thoughts:

    1) Why were these “listening” sessions held where forest workers do not live? It almost seems as though the intent was to listen to the urbanites, the folks who tend to have less of an intimate knowledge of the forest. Could it be that there are fewer voters in the rural areas?

    2) Since it was mentioned – I watched a good portion of the NW Forest Summit on television when Clinton first took office. As it concluded, he reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a sheet of paper, and then read what he wanted to happen. The only way this could have happened was that his directives had been prepared ahead of time. That being the case, the so-called “summit” was a sham and a lie and that he came to the summit already knowing what the outcome was going to be. In my mind, he’d just dug a hole and never got out.

    3) It continues to baffle me why federal land managers do not use the considerable knowledge and expertise of experienced foresters – people who know how to determine landowner objectives and outcomes; how to write a plan that meets those outcomes; people who have experience implementing a plan; and then monitoring the success/failure of the plan. Instead, they seem to rely more on those who sue and the judges and the urbanites. I’d think a diverse group of folks from the Society of American Foresters would be up to the task.

    As our elected officials, the politicians should be able to determine what the long-term outcomes and objectives should be – that is their job! Then, they should turn it over to the professional to write, implement, and monitor a plan. It is kind of like whether or not there should be a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River. Politicians should make that determination but then leave it to the engineer to design, build, and maintain that bridge. As it is, the politicians write forest prescriptions right down to the tiniest detail and spell out exactly how the managers do their job. [That seems like an insult to people who are educated, trained, and hired to do their job.]

    [Heard a story about Prineville, OR today saying that after the mills (fed mostly by federal timber) shut down, they had 20% unemployment.]

  5. “Jim Peña, the Northwest regional forest supervisor, said the Northwest Forest Plan will no longer exist as an umbrella document that applies to all forests equally. Instead, its principles — but not necessarily its specific strategies — will be embedded into the planning documents of each of the 19 forest units.”

    Off to a bad start: making a decision before following the process. This is the no-action alternative, and under NEPA it must be given serious consideration. The 2012 planning rule specifically authorizes regional foresters to make forest plan decisions. The Forest Service shouldn’t be taking options off the table before the ‘collaboration’ begins.

    Actually, the Northwest Forest Plan has never existed as an ‘umbrella document,’ except in a political sense. It exists (legally) as consistent amendments to individual plans. I think a key question is how much consistency among plans is needed to provide an adequate conservation strategy for ecosystems and species that occur across multiple units.

    The new requirement for each forest plan to “contribute to maintaining a viable population throughout its range” is aimed at species like spotted owls, and seems to demand a coordinated approach among national forests that may best be achieved by a common conservation strategy. (That’s the approach now being taken by the five national forests in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem for grizzly bear conservation.) Differences among units would have to be supported by the best available scientific information. And don’t forget that the ESA regulatory agencies will play a role in insuring some minimum level of conservation (and they tend to like consistency).

    I think the Forest Service should also ask what it gains by fighting 19 battles instead of one. Benjamin Franklin’s popular quote comes to mind: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

  6. Steve Wilent said “Too many trees to be cut down, especially near rivers? Where? I haven’t seen any trees cut along rivers on USFS ground in a long time.”

    You may not be aware but harmful logging practices still occur in riparian reserves, often under the guise of restoration, for example:
    * The Goose, Canyon Thin, and Margie Projects on the Willamette National Forest include hundreds of acres of logging in mature forests in riparian reserves;
    * The Rail 2, and D-Bug Projects on the Umpqua National Forest also include substantial amounts of logging in riparian reserves stands more than 80 years old; and
    * The Long Tom Landscape Project on the Eugene BLM, and the Cheney Slate and Farout Projects on the Medford BLM also involve logging in older stands in riparian reserves.

    Not only is logging allowed in riparian reserves, but a substantial fraction of federal log production over the last decade has come from thinning dense young stands within riparian reserves. Unfortunately, the agencies do not separately track volume production from riparian reserves, but a review of BLM annual monitoring reports shows that substantial commercial logging regularly occurs in riparian reserves, for example:
    * Between 2005 and 2011, more than a third of the timber volume sold from the Salem District BLM came from reserve land allocations, and about half of that was from riparian reserves.
    * On the Eugene District BLM, from 2008 through 2010, more than half of all the acres of commercial thinning took place in riparian reserves.
    * On the Roseburg District BLM, between 2007 and 2011, more than half of the offered timber volume on the District came from reserves, and more than one-third of that comes from riparian reserves.
    * In recent years on the Coos Bay District approximately half of the sold timber volume comes from reserve land allocations, including riparian reserves.

    • 2ndLaw, I perhaps ought not to have used the word “any” in my off-the-cuff remarks. I support the harvest of timber from riparian zones when it improves forest health and decreases fire risk and potential intensity.

      FWIW, wood-cutting permits on the Mt. Hood National Forest say that ‘”WOODCUTTING IS PROHIBITED in Late Successional Reserves, Research Natural Areas, riparian areas (riparian areas are defined as land within 300 feet of water such as springs, streams, wet meadows, floodplains and overflow channels)….”

      • I support thinning in riparian reserves when there are clear net ecological benefits. However, fuel reduction in moist westside forests is not restoration. For many years thinning in riparian reserves has been justified based on the notion that thinning improves recruitment of dead wood to streams. But recent science shows that this is not the case. Thinning produces slightly larger trees than unthinned stands, but it produces far fewer total stems, because most were exported form the site during thinning. The gain in a few larger trees comes at the expense of losing large numbers of slightly smaller but still functional pieces of wood. See Thomas Spies, Michael Pollock, Gordon Reeves, and Tim Beechie 2013. Effects of Riparian Thinning on Wood Recruitment: A Scientific Synthesis – Science Review Team Wood Recruitment Subgroup. Jan 28, 2013, p 36.

        The agencies are slow to internalize this trade-off, but they are beginning to shift their rationale. Now they are thinning to improve species diversity and canopy layering, but they are not evaluating the trade-off between slight gains in stand diversity and great costs in terms of dead wood recruitment. For foresters with timber targets to meet, clear thinking is hard to come by.

        See also, Frissell, Christopher A., Baker, Rowan. J., DellaSala, Dominick A., Hughes, Robert M., Karr, James R., McCullough, Dale A., Nawa, Richard. K., Rhodes, Jon, Scurlock, Mary C., Wissmar, Robert C. 2014. CONSERVATION OF AQUATIC AND FISHERY RESOURCES IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST: Implications of New Science for the Aquatic Conservation Strategy of the Northwest Forest Plan, FINAL REPORT, July 30, 2014. This report summarizes the available information and concludes that non-commercial thinning in very young stands might advance aquatic objecitves, but that commercial logging is unlikely to provide net benefits due to wood removal, road requirements, soil impacts, etc.

        • Remember, there are multiple benefits and impacts to thinning projects. You cannot exclude some of the benefits while promoting “Wood Recruitment”. Does anyone find it odd that it is only the Forest Service which evaluates and balances ALL the impacts and benefits? All too often, some people use one or more impacts (without factoring in the mitigations) to “prove” that all thinning projects are bad. Every decision is a compromise…. even the decisions to “do nothing”.

    • A post full of spin. The Margie Project, for example, does not authorize streamside timber harvest. There is thinning in the riparian reserve, true. These areas extend hundreds of feet from a stream. Most all prescriptions keep at least a 75-100′ no cut buffet.

      Also, I would not categorize many of these areas as “mature forests.” For Margie, riparian areas are characterized by homogeneous stands with minimal diversity and limited understory development.

      Let’s stick to the facts here.

  7. Jon, I enjoyed reading your comment. Nineteen forest plan amendments sounds like a pre-determined nightmare.

    To add fuel to the fire, this was just published on Greenwire:


    FWS mulls listing upgrade for troubled northern spotted owl

    Corbin Hiar, E&E reporter
    Published: Wednesday, April 8, 2015

    In response to a petition from a California environmental group, the Fish and Wildlife Service today said it will reconsider the status of the northern spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act.

    The bird has been classified as threatened since 1990, when FWS officials found the species could be on the brink of extinction in the near future. The decision to weigh an endangered status for the spotted owl — which has suffered nearly 3 percent annual population declines across its range in recent years — suggests that regulators believe it is in danger of immediate extinction.

    The bird became a hot-button issue during the George H.W. Bush administration when the Bureau of Land Management requested an Endangered Species Act exemption to allow logging in some Pacific Northwest old-growth forests that are home to the medium-sized brown-and-white owls. BLM’s request was withdrawn shortly after the Clinton administration took office in 1993, partially due to legal challenges from environmental groups.

    While the threat of logging has decreased since the 1990, the survival of the northern spotted owl is now increasingly challenged by competition from barred owls. Native to the eastern United States, the larger and more aggressive barred owls have in many cases displaced their spotted cousins, disrupted their nesting and fought them for food. In some instances, barred owls have been observed attacking or interbreeding with spotted owls.

    “The best tools we have to prevent spotted owls from going extinct are continued habitat protection and barred owl management, both of which are recommended in the recovery plan,” Paul Henson, FWS’s Oregon state supervisor, said in a statement. “Our review of the spotted owl will tell us whether current efforts to address threats are sufficient.”

    The status review was requested by the Environmental Protection Information Center. A finding that FWS is set to publish in the Federal Register on Friday determined that the information submitted by the group warrants further evaluation.

    Publication of the preliminary determination will set off a 60-day comment period. FWS aims to complete its review of the northern spotted owl’s status and propose any potential changes in April 2016.

    Any regulatory change is unlikely to be implemented until the following year, according to a FWS official. Furthermore, it would have little practical impact on the already strict regulations prohibiting the incidental harming or killing of northern spotted owls, the official said.

    • Good point, Emily. There doesn’t seem to be much evidence that spotted owls need less protection than they did.

      There is also the possibility that changes in the Northwest Forest Plan could lead to listing of other species. In particular, the Fish and Wildlife Service just announced that the Humboldt marten is not warranted for listing, in part because of the regulatory mechanisms provided by these forest plans. As quoted in this article:

      “As part of its evaluation, the Service also determined that existing regulations involving multiple Federal and State land use plans are being implemented effectively. In addition, policies and regulations associated with the Northwest Forest Plan continue to abate the large-scale loss of forested habitat types that may be suitable for coastal martens.”

      If the FWS relies on regulatory mechanisms to find that a species is not warranted for listing, and those regulatory mechanisms change, they’re going to have to revisit the listing decision.

      • Sadly, the ESA doesn’t protected species habitats from drought, bark beetles and catastrophic wildfires. Maybe that should be a change in the ESA, or will people trot out the same old “slippery slope” tactics?

        • You’re mostly right. ESA applies to proposed human actions. However, it can help species survive these other kinds of threats by reducing the effects of things we can control.

          The status review that’s about to be initiated would be a good opportunity for the Fish and Wildlife Service to weigh the relative risks of logging and fire to spotted owls. (Something similar was done for salmon once.) They’ll be asking for your input.

  8. I would of liked to attend the meeting in Portland because I think is important for someone to speak up the small producers who depends on, (or who would like to), on Federal Timber.
    A Tuesday night meeting at 5:30 just didn’t make sense when you live 5 hours away.
    I assume that the Forest Service knew that few timbers workers would attend. Not to mention there is general disillusionment that anything comes from these meetings.
    I hope something happens because the NWFP isn’t working. My experience as been waste and destruction in our federal forests and more social and economic hardships for our rural communities.
    Not sure what the upside to the plan has been.

  9. Revisiting the NW Forest Plan and the northern spotted owl’s status may present an opportunity to address the primary threat to owl habitat: fire. Wildfire has affected far more owl habitat in the last two decades than timber harvesting, and fire is likely to become a greater threat in some areas. Thus, there is a need for active forest management in that habitat — LSRs, riparian reserves, and so on. The challenge is to convince the folks who continue to espouse a “hands-off” approach that careful management, even including commercial timber sales, is warranted.


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